Face of a Nation
Turning Gate meets Garden State
By Jeff Reichert
To make the idea of a national cinema compelling, audiences need a body in which to locate the quirks and idiosyncrasies of that nation’s filmmaking—services that Ingmar Bergman, Abbas Kiarostami, and Akira Kurosawa each performed in their time. Force a cinephile off the street to name a new South Korean filmmaker, and they’d probably offer “that Oldboy guy,” if a name was forthcoming at all (half credit for “Im Kwon-taek”). It’s the only logical choice, as Park Chan-wook’s been receiving inexplicably rapturous reviews for his recently released revenge drama, somehow even finding his way into an unlikely bit of New York Times Arts & Leisure fellatio. Currently, the face of new South Korean cinema looks a lot like the face of American Independent cinema of the mid-to-late Nineties, given that Park’s latest draws so much of its power from the mixture of high-concept aesthetics and lowbrow generic appropriations that we’ve been bombarded with since Tarantino. It’s fun and easy to like or even call “great,” but it could just as easily be a yawner if you caught it on the wrong day.
Although the South Korean New Wave has been on the verge of “next thing” status for the past several years, none of its exports to America have broken out to make the national cinema profiles that have peppered film journals thus far seem particularly timely. This relative obscurity belies the fact that South Korea is a near singularity in terms of the international business of film—it’s one of the few nations where homegrown movies regularly trump Hollywood fare at the box office. Part of the reason for South Korea’s cinematic anonymity perhaps lies in the limited distribution given the films of one of its most singular young filmmakers: Hong Sang-soo. (For my money, Lee Chang-dong of Peppermint Candy and Oasis fame is another name to know.) Hong has five films underneath his belt that have garnered widespread festival play, yet none of them have seen release in the U.S. Though his first two films, The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well and The Power of Kangwon Province are both well regarded and showcase his relaxed probing of urban ennui, it was his third feature, the wonderfully titled Oh Soo-jung! Virgin Stripped Bare by her Bachelors (2000), that launched his reputation internationally. A droll, black-and-white Rashomon–esque romantic comedy surrounding the efforts of two men to bed the titular virgin, Oh Soo-jung! crystallized his focus on the complex interactions leading up to and following intercourse as viewed through a wry, omniscient perspective that shifts allegiance from one of the “bachelors” to the virgin midway through the film replaying the preceding events through her recollections of the same. This bifurcated structure is by now something of a hallmark of Hong’s filmmaking (it turns up in different fashions in Kangwon Province, Turning Gate, and his latest, Woman Is the Future of Man). Oh Soo-jung! established Hong’s reputation, but Turning Gate cemented it, and for me marked him as an indisputably vital artist—he seems a filmmaker on the verge, much like Olivier Assayas after Une nouvelle vie.
A national cinema needs a face, but this is not another “national cinema” piece. At least not exactly. As disheartening as it is for me to see a filmmaker like Hong languish in the festival ghetto I’m just as sadly curious about the twisted mirror reflection of a filmmaker like him: the young American (h)auteur with a breakthrough film at Sundance purchased for millions by a Miramax, and sent on a nationwide press tour where writers marvel over the whiteness of his (almost always a “he”) teeth and the down-to-earth way he sips a latte. 2004’s entry came in the form of Zach Braff (star of the riotous sitcom Scrubs) and his Garden State, a low-key New Jersey set dramedy now more famous for O.C.-ing low-key Santa Fe pop band The Shins into the homes of yuppies and moody teens everywhere than for the lightweight romantic comedy on meds that forms its core. Low expectations being the hobgoblin of the sour film critic, I can’t quite say that Garden State was the antichrist I’d pegged it for, and in this I may be somewhat alone on the Reverse Shot staff. But for all its myriad missteps, faults, and how easily it fits into an awful, awful mold (how the hell did Sundance reject George Washington and let this in again?), it’s still often charming.
Turning Gate’s Gyung-soo (Kim Sang-kyung) has just been passed over for a role in a film and leaves Seoul to visit a forgotten friend in a rural Korean town Garden State’s Andrew Largeman (Zach Braff) returns home to Jersey from Los Angeles to attend his mother’s funeral. Both awkwardly rekindle relationships with male friends (Seong-wu and Matt), strike up new ones with women, and struggle with their own inarticulacy and indirection. Yet where Garden State drums this simple premise for the entirety of its length, Hong somehow manages to dust Turning Gate with the whiff of legend, cleaving his film neatly in half by ending Gyung-soo’s first liaison prematurely by introducing a second woman and thus setting the narratives against each other. Garden State is so concerned with its characters’ neuroses that it often forgets the figures onscreen are actual people; Turning Gate somehow turns its characters’ iconic nature into a suffocatingly personal view. It’s hard to chalk this up to necessarily cultural differences—I can talk Jersey with the best of them (Garden State Parkway Exit 36, born and bred), but what do I really know about Korea? Comparing the work of a 44 year-old master filmmaker to a Sundance sensation debut by a relative kid (Braff’s only 29) may seem like stacking the deck, but both films share core narrative concerns—the picaresque romantic misadventures of struggling actors journeying in attempt to avoid potentially overwhelming personal crises—that allow a launching point into the extreme dissimilarities in the way these concerns are handled.
The title of Hong’s third film offers provocative potential for unpacking the complexities of Turning Gate. The giant Marchel Duchamp mixed-media sculpture from which Oh Soo-jung! derives its name, “The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass)” is divided into two frames, the upper containing a sculpture representing the bride, the lower, her nine bachelors. Definitively saying how the bride is being “stripped bare” is nearly impossible, but given its creator’s pedigree, that’s certainly part of the point, and his massed metal contraptions certainly feel considered enough that they should have some relationship to each other—right? On the flipside, the argument is there to be made that Bride is little more than an overgrown monstrosity carefully constructed and titled to fuck with its viewers. Hong takes a similar approach, structuring his film around Korea’s legend of the Turning Gate in which a young commoner falls in love with a princess, is killed by her father, reincarnates as a snake and kidnaps her. The snake is tricked by the princess into waiting for her outside the gates of a Buddhist temple. The snake eventually makes up his mind to enter after her but is turned back at the gate by violent storms. (Gyung-soo and Seong-wu nearly visit the Turning Gate early in the film, but appropriately, turn back before reaching it.)
With this legend hovering over Gyung-so’s relationships with first the dancer Myung-sook (Ji-won Ye) and then with married housewife Seon-young (Sang Mi Chu), Hong encourages us to read the actor’s exploits in light of it. It helps that Gyung-soo stumbles along through both stories in a haze of unself-consciousness, barely aware of any except the most immediate consequences of any of his actions (late in the film, unable to become aroused with Seon-young, he decides it’d be a perfect time for them to commit double suicide), seemingly compelled by forces out of his control up until his final rejection. Though the legend provides an easy crutch, it’s almost as if Hong’s set up the legend in relation to the film as potential trap for the careless viewer; correlations are there to be drawn, but he cleverly switches up gender roles (in the first half Gyung-soo plays the princess/pursued, in the second half, he’s the pursuer) and playfully rhymes sequences and bits of dialogue to muddy the waters further. A mantra repeated by Gyung-soo throughout the film, “Even though it is hard to be human, let us not become monsters,” (plucked from the penniless filmmaker he was hoping to work with—perhaps a Hong stand-in) slyly underscores the more fabulist elements of a narrative that easily tweaks a reality composed of equal parts whimsy and regret. Is Gyung-soo’s quest really a replay of the Turning Gate story, or do the narratives of all relationships bear an epic weight in our minds?
There’s a princess at the core of Garden State as well, but it’s surprisingly not Leia’s mother. Braff transplants his role as the wifty, emotive Dr. Dorian from Scrubs to his Andrew Largeman almost verbatim, adding only a healthy dose of doe-eyed melancholia to remind audiences that his trip back to Jersey isn’t a romp in the park. Thus we’re treated to a gradually revealed traumatic past in which an incorrectly medicated (by his psychiatrist father, of course) child Andrew pushes his mother into a broken dishwasher door, crippling her and sending her into a depression that lasts up until her death, which may or may not have been a suicide. It’s all far more information than an audience possibly needs, and it draws attention from those things which Braff does well: capturing New Jersey on film (grey skies, anonymous, aging two story homes fronted by kicked-in aluminum garbage cans, department stores) and framing interactions between those who left the place after high school and those who didn’t. The latent hostility underscoring his interactions with Peter Sarsgaard’s Mark plays out much like Gyung-soo’s re-introduction to Seong-wu—every second both pairs spend onscreen are shot through with a host of borderline threatening glances that occasionally threaten to erupt into violence. Braff’s tenure on Scrubs seems to have primed his ability to balance his own particular brand of whimsy and pathos, and this may be the film’s saving grace. He’s not as nimble as Hong in moving from moment to moment, or playing out an encounter with shifting mixtures—contrast almost any male-female interaction in Turning Gate with the thuddinglly literal relationship that plays out between Braff and Natalie Portman’s Sam—but a sense of tonal qualities at least exists in Garden State, which is more than can be said for many films of its ilk. The problem here of course is that he’s making a banquet out of a narrative that should have been a light snack—there’s no room in Garden State to start small and push outward for resonance because the film hangs so heavy with the weight of its own over-conception. Even though we never learn much about any of Hong’s characters beyond their onscreen actions—Hong’s not much for complicated backstory—somehow their quiet, leisurely improvisations resonate.
Formal qualities, of course, play a role in this as well—Turning Gate, with its nearly stationary camera and stream of unadorned, contemplative two-shots that position the viewer as a casual eavesdropper (close to the actors but slightly distanced to maintain appropriate separation) for just the right piece of a conversation or the most compelling moment of the sex act (catching Gyung-soo thrusting away on top of Seon-young and questioning repeatedly, “How do you like my moves”), against Braff’s first-timer ADD filmmaking (time lapse, slow-mo, dream sequences, and odd angles). There’s no room in Hong’s cinema for the drug-induced, woozy subjectivity of the house party sequence Braff orchestrates, but that’s not to say that it’s ineffective in its place. But I would have loved to have found in Garden State a sequence as emotionally complex yet simply framed as the conclusion of Turning Gate. In one shot, Seon-young impulsively asks Gyung-soo to wait for her while she gets money from her house so that they can run away with each other. In the next, Gyung-soo is waiting outside her, by now, familiar door in the rain. Both he and the camera linger until he turns away, and the film just ends. Both Garden State and Turning Gate are little, but the latter in the sense of an expansive rigorousness—the kind of paring away to expose essences that allows characters and their intersections to live on in the mind, the former reeks with a sense of self-consciousness that diminishes audience rewards, even as it’s piling on crescendos.
Take a stroll through an art museum, walk from the Greeks and Romans into the Renaissance and marvel at the effort expended through the ages at faithfully rendering reality. Then walk over into East Asian art—look at the contemporaneous woodblock prints and shanshui landscapes. These painters don’t make any claims on photorealism, attempting instead to capture some emotion, or sense of one. I’ve often wondered about the cultural differences that would lead the West to place such a high premium on representational art for so long while Asian nations seemed interested in developing a more figural style (a broad sweeping generalization that could probably be debunked by hundreds of examples of which I’m not aware), but not being much the historian, I couldn’t begin to pull together an educated answer, though I suspect some confluence of capitalism and religion might play a role. But I think the fundamental differences between Turning Gate and Garden State lie somewhere in this dichotomy. No movie can ever truly capture the totality of human existence—those character studies or biopics that make the attempt only force us to accept a particular version rather than offering us the possibility to interpret an experience, though this will never stop filmmakers from trying. The realism of cinema has fooled us for so long into placing too much faith in the image, but in much the same way that Bresson’s flat-affect “models” are burned into my brain, the ciphers of Turning Gate feel more real and lived-with than all three of the main characters of Garden State.
Can the disparate handlings of similar material be chalked up to the kind of brief, sketchy analysis of cultural differences I’ve attempted above? Is this even a productive line of reasoning, or does it necessarily tread upon thorny theoretical ground? Both Turning Gate and Garden State deal with such fundamental conceits—happiness, jealously, sex, love—that it’s hard to point out anything on the level of narrative that becomes impenetrable with a Pacific crossing. But even though I’ve spent a fair chunk of verbiage reifying Hong’s talents, I wonder if Korean audiences might not find more to relate to in Braff’s film. It’s certainly recognizable stuff, and its packaging is more instantly eye-catching. Yes, South Korea has produced a share of local box-office champs, but is this because they’re particularly Korean, or because they ape what’s coming from the Hollywood factory? It’s a question that only raises more questions: Are any of the Asian filmmakers discussed in this issue hometown heroes, or are they nothing more than film lovers’ alternate universe box-office champions? And most importantly, who’s creating their relevance—them, or us?